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When a highly anticipated non-fungible token (NFT) project appears suspicious, skeptical users frequently turn to Twitter to express their concerns and delve deeper into the matter. These allegations tend to escalate rapidly and gain traction, particularly when they involve a prominent influencer in the Web3 community.

Just before her scheduled NFT release on Wednesday, pseudonymous digital artist and researcher Elena found herself embroiled in accusations of plagiarizing artistic assets within her collection. With a substantial following of nearly 90,000, Elena had previously identified herself as the "researcher in residence" at the esteemed Azuki NFT collection. However, this designation has since been removed from her Twitter profile.

During the course of Wednesday, Kemosabe, the chief creative officer at Phase Labs, a governance protocol creator, took to Twitter under the pseudonym "Kemosabe" and published a series of tweets alleging that Elena had "stolen" artwork for her upcoming NFT project, Atomic Ordinals. The collection, which comprised 200 pixel-art inscriptions on the Ordinals Protocol, was initially scheduled to be minted on Wednesday via the Bitcoin Creator Launchpad on the Magic Eden marketplace.


Kemosabe referred to a sequence of tweets by artist Nicole Liu, the creator of the Bitcoin-based NFT collection Abstract Ordinals. In her tweets, Nicole Liu acknowledged the similarities between the artwork but stated that she wasn't particularly concerned about it.

“I think imitation is a form of flattery,” said Liu in a tweet. “It makes me happy that she liked it so much to use it as inspiration and I don't have a problem with it.”

Nevertheless, Liu expressed reservations regarding the image's quality and the exorbitant price associated with the inscriptions.

“I'm sorry to say this Elena but it's unacceptable to charge $1,500 for this,” said Liu.

The conversations surrounding Elena's art swiftly went viral on Twitter, reigniting a discourse about the misuse of power by Web3 influencers to make quick profits-a persistent trend that continues to afflict the community.

“Time and time again, people amass influence only to cash in on it, when the bag becomes big enough,” wrote Kemosabe.

Shortly thereafter, Dem, the anonymous community leader at Chiru Labs, the Web3 company responsible for Azuki, took to Twitter to announce that Elena was no longer employed under contract with Chiru Labs. The team clarified that Elena's contract had recently expired and would not be extended.

Navigating the delicate balance between drawing inspiration and avoiding plagiarism

While the crypto Twitter community was abuzz with talk of the rumored scandal, Elena took to her account to announce the postponement of the Atomic Ordinals drop in response to the backlash. In her tweet, she acknowledged that she had "retraced" certain source images mentioned by other users, a practice that, while not explicitly unlawful, garnered strong disapproval within the art community.


As word about the situation circulated, Elena revealed that she had been subjected to threats and hateful comments in response.
“Today I have received an incredible amount of hate, including numerous death threats in dms, which is disappointing as I’ve always tried to simply give value to the space,” said Elena. “I have heard your concerns about the art and I will be working to fix the file quality and any images that might be seen as ‘copied’ as they were only retraces and I never had any ill intent whatsoever.”
On Thursday evening, Elena took to social media and posted an extensive thread providing more comprehensive explanations regarding the allegations. She clarified that she had utilized "free-for-commercial-use images to substitute 16 of the artworks" and took full responsibility for her actions.
“This is a horrible look. There’s no way around it and I deeply regret it and I genuinely apologize to everyone,” said Elena. “These silo-ed images exist so artists can incorporate them into their work which I know made a lot of people upset.” She noted that those 16 images would be removed from the collection.
The power of Web3 influence
The issue of stealing digital artwork for the purpose of creating NFTs continues to pose a significant problem. This problem becomes even more complex when influential figures in the Web3 community endorse popular projects to their extensive follower base without conducting thorough research.

In May, Andrew Wang, a prominent figure in the Web3 community, endorsed a collection of NFTs called Pixel Penguins, which consisted of pixel art profile pictures (PFPs). Wang took to Twitter, where he had an impressive following of nearly 190,000 users, to promote the project. Furthermore, he made a commitment that the proceeds from the minting of these NFTs would be directed towards the artist, purportedly to assist with their accumulating medical expenses.

Nevertheless, mere hours after the collection secured the coveted position on the secondary marketplace OpenSea, the wallet responsible for the minting smart contract abruptly vanished, absconding with the accumulated funds, while simultaneously witnessing the artist of the collection erasing their presence on Twitter. Subsequently, a series of tweets emerged, suggesting the presence of pilfered artwork.

In addition to their frustration with the artist who deceived them, buyers also directed their anger towards Wang, a prominent figure within the NFT Twitter community, for endorsing the collection.

The rug pull executed by the Pixel Penguins not only ignited discussions on NFT plagiarism but also shed light on the influential role Web3 influencers have in shaping their followers' choices to participate in minting collections.

In February, following the rug pull incident of the once-popular NFT project Friendsies, which involved the project "pausing" its collection and deleting its Twitter account, users began holding influencers accountable for their contributions to the project's success.

In a tweet, Elena announced that her Atomic Ordinals would be available for minting at no cost as a response to the controversy. Ultimately, this project serves as a valuable reminder to enthusiastic collectors who wish to participate in new digital projects: always conduct thorough research, irrespective of the artist's reputation.